Notion that one in 10 wines is corked is ‘a myth’

21st September, 2017 by Lucy Shaw

Patrick Spencer, executive director of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance, has slammed the claim that one in every ten wines bottled under cork is tainted as a “myth”.

Patrick Spencer of the Cork Forest Conservation Alliance

Speaking to the drinks business during the 250th birthday celebrations of Spanish cork producer Trefinos in Girona this week, Spencer said:

“The figure that people quote about one in 10 wines bottled under cork having cork taint is a fallacy – there is no evidence to back this up – it’s a myth that has never been proved.

“Cork used to be a culprit of TCA, but to say that it’s the only way it gets into a wine today is fundamentally wrong. You can find TCA in winery walls, floors, hoses and barrels.

“There isn’t a scientific way to gauge how much how many wines bottled under cork are tainted as there are too many variables – 600 chemicals can affect the flavour profile of a wine.

“We’ve contacted all of the major wineries in the US asking them to send us their distributor bill backs that show that one in 10 of their wines is tainted and none of them have done because the number isn’t that high.

“Christian Butzke, a professor of oenology in the department of food science at Perdue University did a test where he opened 1,000 bottles of wine under cork and less than 1% of them had cork taint.”

When asked about where the one in 10 figure came from, Spencer said: “Where do vampires and unicorns come from? Someone made it up.”

Spencer admitted that there are currently more wines under cork than screwcap affected by TCA, but said this was because there are far more wines bottled under cork than screwcap at the moment – around 65% of all wines produced.

As for screwcaps, Spencer is skeptical about the closure being the best option for wines that are designed to be drunk young.

“When producers say they’ve bottled their wines under screwcap because they are meant to be drunk young it’s 110% bullshit. It’s because they got a better price.

“Producers are being enticed over to screwcap with good deals from the makers. It’s a more convenient opening vehicle for wine but screwcaps don’t breathe.

“If you bottle your wines under screwcap then you’re making the wine specifically for that closure. It’s a convenient closure, but the world is in a shitty place because of convenience and as a winemaker you have a commitment to the land.

“The popularity of screwcaps is being driven by the sin of convenience,” he said. “Why would you choose a closure that flies in the face of rational environmental thought? Sustainability shouldn’t stop in the vineyard, it should follow through into the packaging.

“Screwcaps are recyclable but they’re not getting recycled – 99% of them end up at landfill sites. Just because something can be recycled doesn’t mean that it is,” he added.

Spencer, a former chef and restaurant owner who lives in Oregon, practices what he preaches and doesn’t drink wines bottled under screwcap.

He runs wine eco tours through Spain where attendees get to visit the cork forests of Extremadura, Andalusia and Catalonia.

The erstwhile sustainability coordinator for Willamette Valley Vineyards gave a TED talk in 2014 called ‘from bark to bottle’ about cork harvesting. One of his biggest challenges is debunking misconceptions about cork.

“Very little is known about cork in the US. It’s a common misconception that the trees are cut down when the cork is harvested. A lot of people also think there is a cork shortage, which there isn’t, and that the only way wines can get TCA is through cork,” he told db.

“Cork forestry is the most sustainable and environmentally friendly practice on the planet as the forests produce oxygen and soak up CO2.

“There’s a romance to cork too – corks are wine memories – no one is ever going to have a jar full of screwcaps they’ve saved at home,” he added.

21 Responses to “Notion that one in 10 wines is corked is ‘a myth’”

  1. BRIAN RAUE says:

    PATRICK,
    Your comments are interesting however, over a period of time I participated in many wine shows around the world and tipped down the sink many bottles of high quality wine caused by ‘CORK TAINT’ making the wine undrinkable and not worthy to show prospective buyers.
    Yes, when ref one corks were used it was less than 10%.

  2. Hervé Lalau says:

    I attended a Roussillon tasting this morning. 22 wines were served. 2 were corked.

  3. John Lamond says:

    My experience while working in the UK wine trade was that, in the ’90s, I would say around 8% were affected by cork taint. With the changes in technology within the cork industry since the ’90s, my experience has been far, far fewer bottles affected. I still open more than the average number of bottles and have only encountered 3 bottles this year. Way less than 1%

  4. David Courtenay-Clack says:

    ,
    My experience is that the detrimental effect of cork on wine is far higher than 10%.
    TCA is not the main problem.
    It is loss of freshness in young wines due to a poor seal that spoils many wines.
    This is hardly noticed by consumers. They probably just think the wine is dull and as a consequence never buy another bottle.
    The loss of faith in a wine and possibly in the pundits hat have sang its praise is a major problem for producers of fruit focused fresh wines.

    • …and that is just the point. Badly tainted wines are obvious to most experienced wine drinkers (although not all, as a group incident with a Puligny Montrachet in a high end Stockholm restaurant proved to me), but “dulled” wines can just leave the taster with a negative impression of the wine.

      The late Len Evans used to say “there are no great wines, just great bottles” and to put a modern twist to it (no pun intended) Bruce Tyrrell told me that screwcaps are “the best thing that has happened to Hunter Valley Semillon…”

  5. AJ Linn says:

    I am a wine critic and food writer, meaning I open or have opened for me 2/3 bottles if wine daily. I sincerely cannot remember the last tine I rejected a wine because of ‘cork taint’.

  6. Tom Gable says:

    It’s not just TCA cork taint. About one in four corks in wines I open that are over 20 years old are bad: soft (requiring a pronged opener to get out the cork, versus cork screw which pulls out the middle of the cork in crumbles; and break off when partially removed. There is also premature oxidation in white Burgundies. I’m in a Burgundian wine group and in some vintages, one quarter or more of the bottles have to be dumped.

  7. Patrick; I read your release here; in general you look misinformed, or you need to mentor the person who wrote your speech due to the inaccurate information; this exposition touches on political diatribe before a presentation about the state of the closure industry; Sounds like avoiding the leading wine research organisations who publish reliable data on closure failure. Look forward to future retractions and apologies to industries in this area who have solved the failures by natural cork.

  8. Chris Scott says:

    I’ve never heard the number 1 in 10. However 1 in 20 is far more common a complaint. Patrick answer that wineries show him the refund is a fallacy. Not many people can be bothered with the admin of recovering the cost of a wine. It’s not worth it. We do find that there are wines that are regular offenders that are often corked. We simply de-list the wine. Wineries use cheap cork at your own risk.

    I prefer screw- caps because
    1) You do not have a TCA failure rate. Yes you can get TCA from winery walls etc as claimed, but I have never ever had a corked screw cap so his argument may be true. Its just not validated by experience. It’s a non issue for screw caps.
    2) In older wines, Bottle variation is a nightmare. Cork is a manufactured product, but the manufacturing process can not remove the variation in the underlying dead wood. Open 12 bottle of 20 year old wine and you will get 4 great wines, 4 ok wines and 4 poor wines. The poor wines are often due to cork failure (oxidatioin) or TCA. Cork is not a great product for long term storage if you want a consistent quality product.
    3) Much is made of the cork industries environmental credentials. However the carbon and water wasted when a bottle of wine is ruined by cork is staggering. Wine is a high input product and it is simply unacceptable from an environmental point of view to waste it all because there is a culture of sticking dead wood in the end of a bottle.
    4) The cork industry was like a maffia Don, when people complained about cork taint for 100’s of years the industry was like “what are you gonna do about it….” it was not until screw caps gave an alternative that the industry bothered to sort out the appalling failure rates from 20 years ago. Yes cork taint is less now but the cork industries PR is permanently damaged from decades of a bad attitude.

  9. steve cass says:

    I too, have never heard 1 in 10, I have heard and read 1 in 20, and good corking and clean wineries can make it lower, but not make it go away. “Taint” also comes in degrees….I don’t worry as much about badly tainted wine sold to a local customer, who is wine knowledgeable, they’ll bring it back and get a good one. I fear occasional customers in a distant states with a slightly tainted wine who don’t recognize it as tainted, they just think it is bad wine…and tell their friends…even if it is 1 in 50. Thats bad news we don’t want, and I agree with Chris on “engineered enclosures “, but have not been around long enough to know about #4….

  10. Tom Gable says:

    This screed by Patrick Spencer says plastic corks can lead to breast and colon cancer and screw tops pollute our landfills. Surprised he didn’t claim that all non-Portuguese corks contribute to global warming.

  11. Douglas Fletcher says:

    Can you image what would happen if a car manufacturer had a 0.01% bad product rate much less whatever the true cork taint rate is in the wine industry. Would you buy their car?

  12. Please allow me to respond to this article and to some of the posted comments. I feel it is important to offer some clarity about our organization. The Cork Forest Conservation Alliance is an independent, NGO, whose sole purpose is to preserve and protect the Mediterranean cork forests. As a U.S based non-profit, (501c3) our financial records are open for public inspection. We receive less the 5% of our annual funding from the cork industry, (which include all 7 cork producing countries). It is clearly stated in our by-laws, that the CFCA will always maintain its independence from cork industry influence, especially regarding financial or media support.

    I have clearly stated, on numerous occasions, that our views on the winemaking process and closures are purely environmental. We would never suggest to any winemaker what closure to choose, if that choice is based purely on what they feel is best for their wine quality. It is only when the environmental impacts of any closure are misrepresented, that we will offer the facts that we have gathered through peer reviewed research and studies.

    I would like to address some of the quotes in the article, “We’ve contacted all of the major wineries in the US…” What I actually said was, “At many different wine conventions where I have been privileged to speak, I have challenged any winery in the US to provide us with a “bill-back” that gives credence to the 5-10% numbers being bantered around in the wine press.”

    It is common practice in the US, that every winery, that has distributor representation, should receive bill-backs for damaged or tainted wines. Though the bill-back is not scientific evidence, if there were consistencies in these bill-backs, a more relevant case could be made for the 5-10% figure.

    Regarding the quote, “He believes plastics corks “are on their way out” due to the fact that they leak endocrine disruptors into the wine, which are toxic and can lead to breast and colon cancer.” What I was very clear to say was, “plastic closure sales are down and that one study we have reviewed, (Environmental Health Perspectives, a journal of the NIH, doi:10.1289/ehp.1003220) showed that endocrine disruptors were found in higher than normal levels when plastic wine closures were tested in an ethanol base.” I was also very clear to say that, “endocrine disruptors are some of the leading suspects in colon and breast cancer research”.

    In response to Peter Sudamore-Smith,
    Dear Peter, you commented: “Sounds like avoiding the leading wine research organizations who publish reliable data on closure failure.” Could you please provide me with links to all of that research data? We have searched for that information for over 8 years and were unable to find any independent, (non-closure sponsored) peer reviewed study to corroborate your statement.

    The primary problem with conducting this kind of study is there are far too many variables to accurately point to what part of the wine production process has affected a wine with TCA. As I stated in the article if a winery has TCA in its walls, floors, pallets, hoses, tanks, barrels or any number of other vehicles, how can you accurately asses blame to only one of the many players in the process?

    Here’s and interesting read: http://www.sfgate.com/wine/article/Hanzell-comes-clean-When-

    I fully understand that was a common perception 20 years ago, but all the research on TCA has shown that it is everywhere and that natural cork is, in fact, not the only culprit. Here’s an interesting study that sent a bit of a shock wave through the wine industry: http://www.winespectator.com/webfeature/show/id/43702.
    Should anyone be able to provide me with studies you have suggested exist, I would be more than happy to consider an apology.

    In response to Chris Scott:
    Dear Chris,
    1.Because you have never opened a bottle of wine, sealed with screw cap that was tainted by TCA, doesn’t mean they don’t exist. They do.
    2.I would love to argue this point with you, but none of it is based on science and is more subjective than factual. Then there’s this: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/170-year-old-champagne-recovered-and-tasted-baltic-shipwreck-180955050/
    3.Should you be so possessed, do a Google search on: the mining and production process of Bauxite/Aluminum. The exploration, drilling, refining, petrochemical process, and manufacture of plastics. Then on cork forestry and the harvesting/manufacturing practice Then get back to me about “environmental impact” on shipping a bottle of wine.
    4.Though I might disagree with the “Maffia Don” characterization, (as I have spent the last 10 years working with the people of the cork forests), I would agree with your basic premise. In my TED Talk, I address the exact same issue. But, I would still go back to my original argument that this is more about the health of our planet and dispelling false narratives than who’s to blame for where we are now with the wine closure issues.

    Thank you for letting me make these corrections and comment replies.

    Best,
    Patrick Spencer
    Executive Director
    Cork Forest Conservation Alliance

  13. Vino Vicente says:

    Having read tons of reports, opinions and talking to people who open lots of wine I have seen numbers in the 2-8% range. The Wine Spectator keeps records of the % of wine they find is tainted and can be found here: http://www.winespectator.com/blogs/show/id/Corked-TCA-Wine-Flaw-Laube

  14. Michael Zitzlaff says:

    Hey Patrick,
    I have this feeling that there is a touch of “head in the sand” or “emperors new clothes” syndrome in this article.
    First and foremost, I feel that the title is the greatest misnomer. It is a definative statement and unfortunately these types of statements are easily shot down.
    Just as background, in a previous role I was employed by a CA company that would regularly, comparatively analyse by GCMS and aromatically between 250-300, (peaking at 1000 in busy periods) individual bottles of cork sealed wine from various West Coast US producers daily. Over a 2 year period the running average cork taint result levelled out at 7.8%. So it is not 1 in 10 but rather 1 in 13, so technically yes, 1 in 10 in BS, correct. These are real, in-market results and are the ones that are closest to the consumer experience and so must be taken as base.
    I must also question that you mention TCA taint but does this include all its variations such as TBA and other early stages of taint below threshold? We consistently saw wines that were variable with lower aromatic characters, and flattened fruit characteristics that would not have been seen by consumers as “Corked” but rather than as “it was just ok” when asked about quality, an opinion that effects retail and brand image. This is why you cannot use claim backs as a guide to TCA as for one, it may include other non TCA issues as well as there being too many links in the chain to realistically get sensible and valuable claim back data from wineries based solely on pure TCA, ie “the wine was just ok”, but wasn’t returned.
    I understand the brief you have regards the CFCA, and it is associations such as this that are critical to the wine industry, giving voice to parties that have a vested interest that is linked to economic and ultimately financial survival. Therefore is it very easy to see why your arguments are tainted with the bias brush as some of your comments are purely single minded without giving true science based contrast to your topic.
    As Peter Scudamore – Smith mentions, there is a plethora of supportive research available online from any new world research institute such as the AWRI, yes, funded by the Australian Wine Industry for the benefit of the wine industry not the cork or screw cap industries, to find the truth and to allow winemakers the ability to provide wines to consumers that are not faulty nor below par with a screw cap.
    Embrace the future otherwise the cork industry will go the way of cigarettes, coal mining, newspapers and the steam engine.

  15. Dear Michael,
    Thank you for the lengthly reply. The title is based upon what we have gathered as an average percentage generally found in wine “expert” articles, blogs and general public knowledge. I clearly don’t have my head in the sand nor am I naked of knowledge. If re-read the article you’ll see that I did reference that there are over 600 chemical compounds that can affect a wines flavor profile. I do not believe that TCA is the sole agent in “off wines” but it clearly is the one most consumers are aware of and the focus of the wine press. The test results from the CA company you worked for are interesting, but beg the primary question I have posited, where in the wine making process did the TCA affect the wine? Also, unless I miss-read your statement, I didn’t see anywhere that stated your testing included wines sealed with screw cap or plastic plug. For me, this renders the analyses incomplete. Claim backs are only one aspect of corroborating the percentages suggested in the press. It is by no means scientific, but it could provide some information regarding the %’s the wine press quotes.

    There will never be a quantifiable way to gauge the returns from consumers. People will return a bottle of wine for many reasons, as “corked”, when TCA is not the cause, maybe it has too much Brettanomyces and they don’t like Brett. I could go on, but I’m sure you get my point. Not to suggest you are unaware of this fact, but it there is no research, study or opinion that does not have a bias. Let’s also add to the mix the fact that nearly all wine journals receive advertising revenue from alternative wine closure companies. Do you think that might create a bias?

    As I have said repeatedly, our organization’s primary goal is to preserve and protect one of the world most important forest regions, which sequester over 20 million tones of CO2 each year and provide a significant amount of our planets clean oxygen. I firmly suggest you and Peter Scudamore-Smith conduct your own research into the financial investment the screw cap and plastic companies have invested to discredit natural cork. Over my 9 years working for the CFCA, I have responded to hundreds of replies like yours, (and others here) and there is one thing that remains a constant, never do the those replying to my comments ever mention the environmental aspects I raise, thank you for joining a elect group.

  16. Carl Johnston says:

    Been dispelling this myth for years but when you have fools like James Laube pushing his agenda it remains an uphill battle.

  17. Jauim says:

    I haven’t seen bottle with TCA in my home almost for 20 years (Portugal, you can call me biased but I will write my experince)
    I worked in a restaurant for 3 years …. I call only remember of 2 or 3 bottles coming back.

    TCA wasn’t much of a problem for us… wine is/was cheap for us, we just opened another bottle. But for other countries where wine was more expensive, I believe it’s annoying buying an expensive wine and you can’t drink it. And when the producers of (what some people call) the new world start using synthetic closures, the cork industrie had to develop better ways to eliminate TCA… and THEY DID.

    I might sound arrogant now, but how many of the new world producers started professionally in the past 5 years? 10 years? 20 years? The axes to extract cork can not be clean with bleach. Can you all guarantee that none of you or your employees never used Bleach-based products on your wineries?
    TCA came from a lot of “places” blaming the cork will not end the TCA on your wineries.

    To finish, I remember a seller from New York saying, when someone return a bottle he sent to a lab… the majority of the bottles don’t have TCA, they just don’t like the wine

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